An update on rules governing travel to Cuba
The Trump Administration has recently rolled back progressive Obama-era policies that opened up travel to Cuba. This is unfortunate, since it returns relations with the island nation to those that harken back to the Cold War period. As Colin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, told Time magazine last month: “Unfortunately Cuba, and Cuba travel, is somewhat of a political football. You kind of have to wait until the dust settles. Obviously, it’s difficult for anyone working in the travel business.”
What are the most significant changes?
Cruise ship operations from the U.S. have been banned (although commercial airlines are not affected)—and the People to People Educational Travel category has been eliminated. This category, which emphasized direct contact with the Cuban people through cultural activities was the most popular category for Americans interested in learning more about Cuba.
Can Americans still travel to Cuba?
Yes. And although the People to People category is gone, it’s still possible to travel to Cuba under one called Support for the Cuban People. You must apply for a visa under this category and develop an itinerary that focuses on activities and events that benefit the people directly. These might include meeting with Cubans, attending cultural events, staying at Cuban families’ accommodations (“casas particulares”) or Airbnbs (there are many!) and dining at “paladores,” restaurants owned and managed by Cuban families. Note that you cannot stay at government-owned hotels or deal with government-owned businesses. (FYI, here’s a list of non-approved hotels and businesses).
Americans with family in Cuba can still travel there as can Americans traveling to Cuba for business or humanitarian purposes.
Here are the basic requirements to travel independently (as a tourist):
1) Choose the appropriate travel category as defined by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). For most people, this category will be Support for the Cuban People.
2) Buy a tourist card/visa (from your airline) valid for 30 days—cost is around $50-$100 depending on your airline.
3) Purchase required medical insurance (Cuba specific)—you pay this as a $25 surcharge on your airline ticket.
4) Complete an OFAC Certification Form supplied by your airline. This legal document can be completed at the airport. You must identify the category in which you’re traveling along with some supportive details.
5) Don’t forget to save notes/ documentation of your itinerary for five years. Just in case you need to prove you’ve followed the rules.
NOTE: Delta has flights to Cuba from Miami and Atlanta gateways. American, Southwest, United and Jet Blue also offer flights to Cuba. Check with each of these airlines for up-to-the-minute details.
Independent versus group tours
In sum, you can travel independently (and usually less expensively) as long as you follow the guidelines for the Support for the Cuban People category. You must be involved full time in activities that support Cubans. These include those noted above and more—for example, shopping in local stores; going to private art galleries and museums; taking Spanish language, music or dance classes; meeting with locals to discuss their culture. In other words, the required activities include many of those things you would do anyway as an inquisitive traveler. Although “free” time is allowed, activities that probably would not qualify are spending time at a resort laying on a beach or snorkeling. Remember that you must keep, for a period of five years, all your receipts as well as evidence of your itinerary—just in case you’re questioned later about your trip by a U.S. official (although this is unlikely).
Or … you can book a group trip with a tour company. These are typically accompanied by a U.S. guide and a local Cuban guide. Such tours can be quite informative, since they focus on learning about Cuba and how her people live. Also, all the red tape and scheduling is handled in advance by the tour company. These trips are convenient, but they usually cost more than if you traveled on your own.
After checking with the U.S.-based travel company that organized our own excellent trip to Cuba in 2012, Friendly Planet (friendlyplanet.com, 800-555-5765), we were advised that their tours will remain virtually the same. Now, however, they will be offered under the Support for the Cuban People category. This company was one of the first to have been awarded a license for Cuba travel by the U.S. Treasury Department back in 2011.
So don’t hesitate to plan a trip to Cuba. It’s not that difficult to arrange, and you’ll come away with memories for a lifetime!
To learn more, see our video about Cuba, our feature story and our earlier post. And check out this state department FAQ. It covers a host of other questions you might have on current (as of June 5, 2019) requirements.